Burn-out. Crossroads. Identity crisis. Break down. Wilderness season. Mid-life crisis. Back-sliding. We’ve all got different names for spiritual crisis. Some have less bite (and possibly less honesty) than others.
Spiritual crisis is hard, but it can be good news! The temptation is to assuage someone’s doubt and tuck them right back into the fold as quickly as possible. But, properly viewed, it’s really an invitation to explore the deeper depths of God and come into your truer identity.
The transition into stage 4 and 5 faith is a tumultuous time where foundational assumptions are shaken and deconstructed. (If you need to see an overview of the six stages of faith, see Part 1.) You know what you don’t believe, but you cannot figure out what you do believe. You’ve left one shore, but you cannot see the other side, and you don’t think you can tread water much longer.
Signs of Faith Stage Transition:
- Distancing from community of faith – less participation and fewer commitments
- Stops attending church or leaves faith organization
- Questioning and critical analysis of belief systems
- Disillusionment with leaders, church, or organization
- A season of ungrounding: uncertainty, doubt, (and sometimes) anxiety, depression, burn-out, midlife crisis
- Exploration of knowledge from groups who believe differently, even considered “non-orthodox”
When moving into stage 4, your faith will change from certain and outspoken to hesitant and full of questions. In church, you’re triggered by the sermon, the worship style, the leadership structure, the fact that everyone else is in agreement and you’re lost in skepticism. Moving into both stage 4 and 5, you grow more self-reflective. What once inspired your soul now falls short. You compare your experience of life to your belief systems and find contradictions. This is not a bad thing; this is the call of the Spirit to move into an examined, reflective faith.
Each transition will be like wearing your favorite shoes that you’ve outgrown. You simply will not take them off until it is so painful that keeping them on is unbearable. For a season, you’ll go barefoot… which is both freeing and uncomfortable. Your goal is to work out an essential deepening of your faith and experience and to expand your world-view and identity. Eventually, you’ll slip into a new pair of shoes, custom made with Holy Spirit, which will serve you for the next season of your life.
Stage 4: The Critic
This stage can begin when a person leaves home. (18 to the mid-twenties) Often it is not entered until mid-life. As you can imagine, at mid-life the consequences of shifting one’s approach to self and faith are far bigger than for the twenty-year old who doesn’t have to answer to a boss, a spouse, or kids watching their every mistake. Say hello to mid-life crisis!
“Stage 3 to 4 is a difficult, if not an impossible, journey on one’s own. For many it will become a permanent state.” – Dr. Alan Jamieson
Sadly, most who leave the Church or faith do so as they transition into stage 4. In part, this is due to our lack of know-how in discipling faith crisis.
“Although Evangelical churches have been strong on discipleship, especially immediately after conversion, this has generally not lead to an ongoing focus on the maturing of Christian faith, particularly in terms of major faith transitions and changes.” – Dr. Alan Jamieson
Some become Reflective Exiles1 because they feel they cannot continue their faith journey within their church walls. They want the permission and safety to raise destabilizing questions. They want someone with the nerve and knowledge to help them explore alternative answers to the doubts plaguing them. Most often, they become Disillusioned Followers.2
Key Markers of Stage 4 Faith: “I don’t know.” (This unknowing holds more depth than stage 3’s certainty.)
- This is the most tumultuous stage-transition.
- It is a 5 to 7-year, on-going deconstruction of faith before (hopefully) entering an examined belief system and realigning with a new community of faith (signs the transition phase is complete)
- Withdraws due to shame and fear of being judged by community
Stage 5: The Seer
“If Stage 3 is one-dimensional, and Stage 4 is a place where the very idea of dimensions is questioned, then stage 5 is a place where, in its richness and ambiguity and multidimensionality, truth must be approached from at least two or more angles of vision simultaneously…” – Dr. James Fowler
Stage 5 is marked by wonder, rediscovery, and a growing vision of oneness with God and humankind.
When I use the term ‘oneness’ often an eyebrow is raised. Is ‘oneness’ Christian? Consider John 15 on abiding, John 17 on Jesus’ prayer for us to one with each other, or Colossians 1 where it’s stated all creation, including ourselves, exists by and is held together in Christ. Jesus’ life and ministry flowed from an awareness of biblical oneness.
In this stage, you’ll discover new dimensionality to beliefs and practices, even some you may have discounted in stage 4. You’ll be inspired by those you once found different or even threatening; they can point out blind spots that correct faith. Paradox and mystery are no longer troubling but clues that deeper meaning is to be discovered. You’ll be ready to dismantle your first half of life to rework and reclaim it in a way that brings you closer to your true identity.
The danger of stage 5 faith is it can become a private faith. Your interior experience of God is often contemplative and so rich you might feel little need for Church community or outreach. However, the Church needs you to serve as faith guides, to assist those is stage transition, to help others taste your deeper sense of abiding, and to model how to serve from a posture of oneness with humanity.
Key Markers of Stage 5 Faith: “I am my body, my thoughts, my beliefs, my community, my culture, my experience, even my brokenness… But I am not constrained by any of that. I am more.”
- Has found the sacred lessons in defeat, failure, irrevocable acts and commitments
- Commitment to justice and community is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religion, nation, etc.
- Motivated to help others cultivate identity and meaning
- Remains divided by the personal cost of living out their transforming vision
A young missionary, full of shame, once whispered to me: “I can’t share the gospel anymore because I feel like I’m selling something I don’t know if I believe.”
My response caused a few reactions – surprise, a giggle, and relaxation: “Great! God is so excited. He’s probably saying, ‘Look! She’s finally ready for more of Me.’”
Tips on Discipling Faith Crisis:
- Be a safe person. The most helpful thing anyone can give a person experiencing faith crisis is to tell them it is normal.
“What they are experiencing doesn’t mean that they are losing their faith. It doesn’t mean that they are backsliding…” They need assurance they are following a “…well-worn path to maturity of faith.” -Dr. Alan Jamieson
- Form small, safe groups led by a capable guide where questions are encouraged and different ways of engaging beliefs and practices are expanded.
- Encourage forgiveness of their community, be it their church, leadership, organization, or family. Bitterness can stall faith development or result in leaving the faith entirely.
- As a faith community, be sensitive that many within your group are wrestling with the big, controversial questions. Avoid comments that would shame or alienate.
- Understand some faith communities do not have the capacity to support stage 4 or 5 faith. Help your disciple find a community of faith that can.
Stage 6: The Saint
I’d like to say that you and I have a good chance of growing up all the way into stage 6, but we don’t. Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. Most often, these believers are shaped by the currents of history. They often lead non-violent movements, and some die at the hands of those they are trying to liberate and change. They shake our ideas of normalcy and offend our comfortable and acceptable ideals of goodness and justice. Their commitment to justice and love defies social, political, and religious structures that would deny this to anyone.
Stage 6 most resembles the zealous activity of stage 3 but is motivated by a radical vision of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. Think of how Jesus welcomed the prostitute, touched the unclean leper, and chided the Pharisee for focusing too much on who was outside his ideas of righteousness and value. Think of God’s great dream to have every tribe, tongue, people group and nation commune with Him for all eternity. Stage 6’s radical inclusivity is the outworking of Jesus’ vision of oneness. While stage 5 has a growing desire to live from this space, stage 6 is actually doing it.
Some Stage 6 Examples:
- Mother Teresa’s care for India’s discarded and dying
- Diedrich Bonhoeffer’s work as a double agent to end the Nazi regime
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s sacrifice to restore dignity and rights to African Americans
How can I say a Spiritual Crisis is Good News?
It’s good news because it doesn’t have to mean you’re casting out everything you believed and stood on; rather, you’re ready to examine it, undo some of it, and explore new, life-giving territory. This process is called transformation. It’s miraculous and cannot be forced. You cannot choose it, but it just may choose you. Are you ready?
References and Further Study:
Benner, D. G. (2012). Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation.
Jamieson, A. (2002). A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys beyond the Churches.
Fowler, J.W. (1995). Stages of faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. (First published in 1981).
Jamieson, A.K. (1998). A Churchless Faith: Faith Outside the Evangelical Pentecostal/Charismatic Church of New Zealand (Doctoral dissertation).
Stanfield, Tonya. (December 2017). Contemplative and Embodied Worship to Mediate Faith Stage Transition in YWAM. Glocal Conversations, Vol 5(1).